Sure Start

Sure Start
Sure Start logo

Sure Start is a UK Government initiative applying in England, originating with HM Treasury, with the aim of "giving children the best possible start in life" through improvement of childcare, early education, health and family support, with an emphasis on outreach and community development. The programme was originally intended to support families from pregnancy until children were four years old but the brand was extended to cover an undefined responsibility up to age fourteen, or sixteen for those with disabilities.



Launched in 1998, Sure Start had similarities to the Head Start programme in the United States and is also comparable to Australia Head Start[1] and Ontario's Early Years Plan.

Related to the Government's goal of reducing child poverty, the initial districts for Sure Start development were selected "according to the levels of deprivation within their areas"[2] the focus being particularly on disadvantaged areas but open to all families living in the catchment area. Such catchment areas were selected locally by the projects.

Sure Start is overseen by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Work and Pensions. The programme has been described by Tony Blair as "one of New Labour's greatest achievements".

Each project was allowed to develop in its own way depending on the expressed wishes of parents and the guidance of the various organisations heading up each one. Policy on such matters as choosing volunteers and even the services offered were a local level decision.[3]

Sure Start local programmes were opened in waves, Round 1 indicates the first wave of programmes starting 1999. Round 6 represents the final wave of Sure Start local programmes mostly starting in 2003.[4]

The National Evaluation of the programme is ongoing. The latest evaluation, at age three years, showed positive, if modest, effects for all categories of families.[5]

Every Child Matters proposed a switch from Sure Start local programmes to Sure Start Children’s Centres, which would be controlled by local authorities, and would be provided not just in the most disadvantaged areas. The government’s current[when?] target is to have 3,500 children’s centres in place by 2010. Of the 524 original Sure Start local programmes, most are now Sure Start Children's Centres.

Some Sure Start Local Programmes have become registered Charities and Companies Limited by guarantee. Sure Start Hounslow, a programme in West London, became a company limited by guarantee in 2004 and now delivers a range of services, many through Service Level Agreement with the local authority, not all of which focus entirely on children under five. This development has been one of many routes that Sure Start Local Programmes have taken to ensure sustainability during the "tapering" of the original Sure Start Grant.

In 2005, Norman Glass, one of the original architects of Sure Start wrote an article praising the increased government focus on the early years, but criticising cuts in funding per head; the change from child development to childcare and getting mothers into work; and the shift back to local authority control, rather than being run by boards including parents.[6]

Children's Centres are expected to provide:

  • In centres in the 30% most disadvantaged areas: integrated early learning and childcare (early years provision) for a minimum of 10 hours a day, five days a week, 48 weeks a year; and support for a childminder network
  • In centres in the 70% least disadvantaged areas, which do not elect to offer early years provision: drop-in activity sessions for children, such as stay and play sessions
  • Family Support, including support and advice on parenting, information about services available in the area and access to specialist, targeted services; and Parental Outreach
  • Child and Family Health Services, such as antenatal and postnatal support, information and guidance on breastfeeding, health and nutrition, smoking cessation support, and speech and language therapy and other specialist support
  • Links with Jobcentre Plus to encourage and support parents and carers who wish to consider training and employment
  • Quick and easy access to wider services[7]

Evidence of effectiveness

A 2007 study by researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Wales published in the British Medical Journal[8] looking at parenting interventions within the Sure Start system in Wales examined 153 parents from socially deprived areas and showed that a course teaching improved parenting skills had great benefits in reducing problem behaviour in young children. Parents were taught to:

  • Increase positive child behaviour through praise and incentives
  • Improve parent-child interaction: relationship building
  • Set clear expectations: limit setting and non-aversive management strategies for non-compliance
  • Apply consistent gentle consequences for problem behaviour

The study recommended that this evidence based class, be expanded from Wales to the rest of the UK, making it available for all parents who need it, stating that the Sure Start program has not yet produced results as good as these in England.

This lack of effectiveness in England is backed up by a University of Durham study which suggested that sure start was ineffective at improving results in early schooling.[9][10]

Although early evaluations did not find Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLP) to have been particularly effective, more recent research from the National Evaluation of Sure Start (NESS) concludes "For the time being, it remains plausible, even if by no means certain, that the differences in findings across the first and second phases of the NESS Impact Study reflect actual changes in the impact of SSLPs resulting from the increasing quality of service provision, greater attention to the hard to reach and the move to Children’s Centres, as well as the greater exposure to the programme of children and families in the latest phase of the impact evaluation."[5]

Government cuts to Sure Start

Cuts in funding from central government to local authorities in England has led to fears that up to 250 Sure Start centres will close in 2011.[11] Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Michael Gove has admitted that funding for Sure Start has not been protected,[12] though Children's minister Sarah Teather said there was enough money available to maintain existing children's centres.[11] A number of local councils have announced cuts to their Sure Start budgets,[13] and ministers have said they want to refocus the scheme to help the most disadvantaged families.[14]

Parents and mothers' groups have protested against these cuts,[14] and have taken their campaign directly to Downing Street.[15]


  1. ^ A Head Start for Australia: An Early Years Framework NSW Commission for Children and Young People, 26 February 2004
  2. ^ The 1998 Green Paper Department for Children, Schools and Families, 30 April 2009
  3. ^ Early Years and childcare information for LAs Department for Children, Schools and Families, 28 May 2009
  4. ^ Guidance resources - Every Child matters Department for Children, Schools and Families, 30 March 2006
  5. ^ a b The Impact of Sure Start Local Programmes on Three Year Olds and Their Families National Evaluation of Sure Start Research Team, March 2008
  6. ^ Glass, Norman (5 January 2005). "Surely some mistake?". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 May 2010. 
  7. ^ Governance guidance for Sure Start Children’s Centres and extended schools Department for Education and Skills, 2007
  8. ^ Parenting intervention in Sure Start services for children at risk of developing conduct disorder: pragmatic randomised controlled trial BMJ, 23 January 2007
  9. ^ £3bn scheme to help pre-school children learn ‘has had no effect’ Times Online, 28 August 2007
  10. ^ Sure Start in County Durham University of Durham, 17 December 2010
  11. ^ a b Closure threat to '250 children's centres' BBC News, 28 January 2011
  12. ^ 250 Sure Start centres 'could close within a year' The Telegraph, 28 January 2011
  13. ^ Many children's centres 'under threat of closure' BBC News, 14 January 2011
  14. ^ a b Parent threatens action over Sure Start closure plan BBC News, 24 March 2011
  15. ^ Mothers take Sure Start cuts fight to Downing Street BBC News, 3 April 2011

External links

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